A Sermon preached by The Revd Angela Tilby on 22 May 2011, at Corpus Christi College Chapel on the theme of Temperance, one of seven Sunday evening sermons preached on the theme of Seven Christian Virtues.
When I realised that, in this series of sermons on the virtues, the chaplain had assigned to me the virtue of Temperance I wondered whether it was intended as a personal comment on my lifestyle – a not too subtle prod to go on a diet or to watch my alcohol units. I thought I had drawn the short straw among the virtues. Temperance seems such a chilly virtue; a snobbish distrust of the bodily appetites, a frozen smile of disapproval at pleasure.
I suppose also in the back of my mind were the Temperance movements of the 19th century which encouraged the young and the poor to ‘take the pledge’ to abstain forever from alcoholic drink. Tea was the virtuous drink for those who might otherwise have been tempted, ‘the cup that cheers but does not inebriate’ as William Cowper is reputed to have said, though I don’t find much cheer in the limp tea bag dunked in luke -warm water that passes for tea most of the time. The whole thought of the Temperance thing tends to provoke in me a rash fit of Epicureanism: ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’. Except that eating and drinking most of the things I enjoy brings that tomorrow we die a little nearer.
So I swing, as many of us do from fits of abstinence into fits of indulgence. And our culture and habits encourage that swing, inviting us to reflect on the confessions of the rich and famous especially those who have nearly wrecked themselves with drink and drugs and sausage rolls; with those who remain intemperate and those who have embraced sobriety. We mimic them. It is not uncommon to find people (especially when embarking on a demanding career) working all the hours God gives for four days a week, eating little and drinking mostly only coffee, and then on Friday going out and get smashed, doing the same on Saturday, sleeping it off Sunday, and then starting the whole cycle again on Monday morning. Effort, work, reward, punishment. Start all over again.
Once I had got to this point in my mental preparation for this sermon I began to see how if those people swinging from abstinence to indulgence were not healthy and potentially rich, but poor, jobless and vulnerable it could just be that the temperance movements offered a beacon of hope and dignity to those they reached, just as AA and other twelve step programmes do today.
But I also realised that I was confusing Temperance with abstinence. They are not the same thing. So I apologise to Temperance and start all over again with the recognition that Temperance is a broader virtue than abstinence and perhaps a harder one to learn.
Enter Sophrosyne: the Greek goddess and guardian of Temperance our underrated and misunderstood cardinal virtue. Sophrosyne is about balance, moderation. It is about not being driven by our instincts and our impulses, and at the same time not being so afraid of our instincts and impulses that we can’t enjoy anything. Between the extremes is a sane way to live. And there is a remarkable consistency across religious traditions about the importance of finding this balance. The Talmud says, ‘The Torah may be likened to two paths, one of fire, the other of snow. Turn in one direction and you die of heat; turn to the other and you die of cold. What should you do? Walk in the middle’ (Hagigah 2.1).
So temperance is a kind of poise, a life skill, spiritual yoga. In the classical tradition it is not only a cardinal virtue in its own right; it is necessary for the other cardinal virtues. Without temperance courage become simply recklessness. Without temperance justice descends into vengeance. Even prudence needs temperance if it is to rise above cautious self-preservation. And this takes us to the heart of what temperance is all about.
It is the virtue that comes from becoming aware that we are constituted by multiple relationships. Our most intimate relationships are with our own bodies. But we are also related to the bodies of our past and future, to our parents and children, and then more widely with the bodies of our immediate friends and neighbours, rivals and enemies, with nature and with the whole planet. ‘There are two ways to live in the world’, says Joan Chittester, a Benedictine sister who has written a wonderful commentary on the Rule of St Benedict. ‘We either live in the world as if we were connected to it like a leaf to a tree or as if we were a universe unto ourselves.’
Intemperance is to live as though we were a universe unto ourselves – a kind of gross denial of reality. It is trying to live as though we had no bodies, or as if our bodies were instruments of our will, possessions for us to do with as we like. For some the fact that we were born without our personal consent is an affront against which we rebel. For others the fact that our personal death is already stalking us in our genetic make-up is a challenge which drives us to beat it.
Sophrosyne, Temperance invites us to find a way through this glorious, complex, enticing web of relationships so that we become whole and holy within it. Yet I think many of us only learn by our excesses. I am not a great fan of Tracey Emin’s work, but you can’t help feeling that anyone who is able to obsess about herself in so many different media and with such obvious industry and drive will inevitably end up as a wise old much-loved national treasure. Which may or may not be what she desires. She might actually become holy – it has happened before, because the swings
between indulgence and abstinence can be the way in which we actually learn the middle path of wisdom. So there is spiritual potential in that hangover that makes you swear you will never drink again; in that regrettable indiscretion with the chocolate biscuits, in that sexual disaster that leaves you embarrassed and humiliated; even in that outburst of inappropriate anger in which you suddenly recognise that you are sitting on a volcano of unresolved rage; whenever you find yourself ‘gratifying the desires of the flesh’; as St Paul would call it; there is an underlying call to turn aside from violence towards ourselves and others.
And this is what Paul calls, ‘living by the Spirit’, living by the Holy Spirit who fills the whole world, because it is the Spirit that opens up and blows through the web of complexity in which we live, the Spirit who guides us if we allow the divine life to come to life in us. And these are the fruits of the Holy Spirit: ‘Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.’ As Paul says, significantly, there is no law against such things. In other words these virtues do not need to be repressed, they are not dangerous to ourselves or to society. They do not destroy our bodies or our minds. They do not damage our most intimate relationships. They are the opposite of violence. At this point the ancient virtues of the classical world and Christian goodness come into harmony with one another. This should not surprise us if we really believe that truth is one. The Middle Way of Temperance is universal.
But accessing Temperance does involve some action on our part, a willingness to be mindful of the truth which underlies the virtue, the truth of our relatedness. And this is where I think the Christian Gospel has something to say that goes beyond the universal wisdom that all can access. For those pursuing virtue in the classical world Temperance was a matter of personal effort and discipline. You could train the body and mind for moderation and greet your achievement with due satisfaction. It was a mark of superiority to have risen above the grosser appetites of the body. And you know what tends to happen then? You increase your efforts at self-control, to increase the pleasure at being rather better at living than other people. And so you end up with the chilly virtue I began with.
Christianity took root among the poor, among those who were greedy because they were hungry and didn’t know if they would eat again, among those who glugged a bottle of wine to keep them warm and have a few moments of bliss, as people to do today on our streets.
Paul says that those who belong to Christ crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. Not only greed, but also pride, not only lust but also cold self-sufficiency.
The human vocation is to walk the middle way between the animals and angels, which the Gospel tells us, is the narrow way of Christ which keeps us connected to everyone and everything. We are crucified with Christ between the extremes, we are raised with Christ bringing all things back into unity. The Spirit is the seal of our relationship with God, making us ready to suffer with others, to be trusting, humble and hopeful, not denying the good things of the body but receiving them with thankfulness and generosity. Temperance is forbearance, forgiveness, mercy. It is what the Lord Jesus Christ brought into the world and celebrated in outrageous banquets and lavish miracles; signs of the kingdom to which he invites us today and every day.